Always a critic

10 incredible pieces of dinosaur art, ranked by a paleontologist

Did Tyrannosaurus rexes really look like that?

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You’ve never seen a T. rex in real life — but you can visualize one, right?

Thanks to paleontology artists, we have some sense of what the world looked like when dinosaurs ruled.

But illustrating life in the Mesozoic Era can be deceptively difficult.

It is more than just drawing dinosaurs: artists have to depict accurate anatomy, environments, time periods, and behavior between species.

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As a viewer, sometimes it’s hard to know which depictions are accurate, and which are not.

Courtesy Stuart Sumida

That’s why Inverse asked paleontologist and movie consultant Stuart Sumida to help separate fact from fiction in 10 pieces of dinosaur art.

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In most cases, the images he rated weren’t entirely accurate or inaccurate.

Rather, they each held kernels of truth about dinosaur life — among more imaginative details.

Here are 10 depictions of dinosaur life, ranked by a paleontologist:

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10. T. rex roars while stomping through a hot, harsh environment

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Sumida likes the beaded look to T. rex’s skin. Its broad head is a realistic feature he says is often overlooked in dinosaur art.

This dynamic pose also seems to do justice to T. rex’s heavy-footed walk.

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But the one holdup Sumida has is with the T. rex’s environment.

Why is it standing on what looks to be hot lava?

“I don't think [T. rex] would have purposely gone and run around a lava field. I've seen people do that in Hawaii — it's a really stupid idea. And animals tend to be smarter than people when it comes to things like that.”

Stuart Sumida

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Rating: 8/10

While Sumida says the T. rex looks great, its environment is a little too dangerous for a higher rating.

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9. A brawl between Triceratops and T. rex

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Triceratops and T. rex may have brawled, though Sumida says they likely wouldn’t have sought out regular battles.

Their remains have been found in the same bone beds — namely the Hell Creek Formation in the Western United States, where this illustration is set.

Sumida thinks the texture and shapes of the dinosaurs seem fair in this image — except for T. rex’s bent knee.

We know from studies on T. rex’s walk that its knee joints wouldn’t be able to fold up like this.

“That's well outside the range [of motion]. This animal is going to need a knee replacement if it keeps doing stuff like that.”

Stuart Sumida

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Rating: 7/10

Sumida gives credit to the artist for not giving Triceratops an oversized crown and having a generally fair representation of T. rex’s body and skin texture. But it’s the beast’s knee that’s tripping him up.

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8. A herd of Triceratops running along a beach

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It’s known that the Triceratops — a species belonging to the group Certaopsia — once lived in large groups.

So, it makes sense to see a whole family traveling together.

“We find these gigantic bone beds with thousands of individuals. And it had to be because they were living together as large groups — at least in part.”

Stuart Sumida

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Sumida also notes that Ceratopsian fossils have been found near waterways or at the edges of continents, so it wouldn’t be unlikely for this family to live near the water.

Rating: 9/10

Overall, Sumida says this image is a reasonable and thoughtful depiction of Ceratopsian social structures. And, he says, it’s nice to see Triceratops in a situation where it isn’t fighting T. rex.

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7. Pterosaurs fly over a small island

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These pterosaurs — which are actually reptiles, not dinosaurs — seem to be in the right habitat.

The shape of their bodies also makes sense, says Sumida. Except for one thing...

One pterosaur is flapping its wings rather oddly.

Instead of bending them in the middle — as birds do — it’s moving its wings up and down like pieces of stiff cardboard.

“Their wings look like they're made out of a straightedge. So it's not a bad pterosaur, but I wish we could see a little bit more [of] what we call the wingbeat cycle.”

Stuart Sumida

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And wait — what’s that?

A lonely sauropod sits on the shores of this island without any clear indication of how it got there.

Rating: 6/10

Overall, Sumida thinks this is beautifully illustrated scenery. But the Pterosaur’s funky flying habits and the isolated sauropod keep it from earning a higher score.

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6. A feathered T. rex walks alongside another feathered animal

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We don’t normally think of T. rex as a feathered dinosaur — but it very well could have been.

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Since other T. rex relatives had feathers, Sumida says there’s weight to the idea that T. rex may have also been covered in fluff.

He gives the artist credit for a bold illustrative choice.

“People love the fact that we're discovering that many dinosaurs had feathers. But they just don't want to put them on Tyrannosaurus because ... it looks like a big chicken.”

Stuart Sumida

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Rating: 6/10

T. rex’s fluffy coat is a nice break from the typical lizard-like depiction of the beast, Sumida says. But its head is a little too narrow, and he also wasn’t certain what kind of raptor the second, smaller dinosaur was supposed to be.

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5. Stegosauruses graze on a perfect bed of grass

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There’s one big mistake in this illustration — Stegosaurus is grazing on grass, but grass didn’t exist until this dino was extinct.

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The dinosaurs themselves look realistic, Sumida says — the placement of their plates and the fact that their tails hover above the ground seems accurate, for example.

But it’s hard to overlook the fact that Stegosauruses were alive in the Jurassic period, and grass wasn’t around until the Cretaceous.

“Where are they? When are they? They look like they're on a golf course, and those plants didn't exist at that time.”

Stuart Sumida

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Rating: 3/10

This isn’t a bad depiction of Stegosaurus, Sumida says, but the environment they’re in needs a serious revamp.

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4. A Stegosaurus sips from a pool of water in an otherwise barren stretch of land

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Conversely, this depiction of Stegosaurs puts the dinosaur in a way too desolate region to survive.

As a herbivore, it would have needed access to tons of edible plants, such as shrubs, ferns, or mosses.

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Sumida says this depiction is a classic case of misplacement.

It’s not uncommon to see a dinosaur depicted in the setting where its bones were found, as opposed to what the region looked like millions of years ago.

“We tend to find fossils in places where there aren't a lot of plants, because it's easier to see the bones that way or excavate them out. [But] it’s not that there aren't fossils in places where there are forest trees.”

Stuart Sumida

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Rating: 3/10

At least there’s no grass in this image, but the environment still isn’t right for Stegosaurus — even if that’s where its bones were found.

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3. Three sauropods wade across a body of water

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Paleontologists used to believe that sauropods primarily lived in water, hypothesizing that they were too big to hold themselves up on land.

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But Sumida says this idea has largely been debunked, thanks to the discovery of more recent fossils.

“It doesn't mean they can't walk across deep rivers ... but the whole thing about putting a whole bunch of them in the water is just, sort of, a little old-fashioned.”

Stuart Sumida

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Rating: 4/10

This image hearkens back to an outdated idea about how sauropods lived. Sumida also points out another case of staightedge wings in the flying pterosaurs.

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2. T. rexes succumb to a fiery death

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What dinosaur-related event is more iconic than the late Cretaceous extinction?

These T. rexes dying in flames represent the fallout — but Sumida thinks the way they’re positioned is odd.

“First of all, that animal [in the foreground] looks like it's dead already. It should be on fire. There's lava flowing into its mouth, okay, it should be barbecued by now.”

Stuart Sumida

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This dinosaur, he says, is more cartoonish than a realistic depiction of how a body would decompose in flames and lava.

Rating: 2/10

The extinction may have been dramatic, but dinosaur death wouldn’t have looked like this.

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1. Another illustration of the dinosaur apocalypse

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Sumida, who has consulted on dozens of movies, was least impressed by this image’s lighting inconsistencies.

“If this were a movie, they would fire this person as a compositor,” he says.

The different layers seem to combine a variety of media — a painting in the background, and small plastic toys in the foreground, giving it a chaotic, ununified feeling.Shutterstock

“The combination of these different media from different time periods was just too jarring for me.”

Stuart Sumida

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Rating: 1/10

Were the dinosaurs accurate? Somewhat — although Sumida notes that there appears to be Coelophysis in the background, a genus that died out in the Triassic period. Otherwise, it’s the lack of consistency that causes this depiction’s low rating.

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